Cinderella Story

She didn't wait around on a fairy godmother or a glass slipper, but Mariah Carey has the castle, the career, and the Prince Charming. Elysa Gardner talks to the elusive pop princess about music, marriage, and the whole multi-racial melodrama.

Vibe Magazine by Daniela Federici

Vibe (US) April 1996. Text by Elysa Gardner. Photography by Daniela Federici.

Mariah Carey lives in a big estate on top of a hill. To get there, you have to drive through the narrow, winding back roads of Bedford — a posh, secluded district of New York's suburban Westchester County. Then you're confronted by two giant electronic gates.

It's just before 6:00 on a foggy December evening when the driver escorting me to the house is allowed past the second one. We travel on for another quarter mile or so, past a display of immaculate spruce trees, and pull up to the back entrance. "Look at the castle," the driver says. "Who knows? Maybe some day you and I can have the same."

I'm not holding my breath. But there's something about Carey's meteoric rise to stardom that does make people believe in impossible dreams. "Fairy tale" and "Cinderella story" are cliches that you constantly hear in association with the 26-year-old-singer. And that's fair enough: Like all the great Walt Disney heroines, Carey comes from humble stock and got to where she is through a combination of good luck, good genes, and sheer moxie. As she tells me later, "I think of Cinderella as a poor girl who worked her ass off and became a princess. In that sense, I don't mind the comparison."

And when I arrive at her house, Carey is on her hands and knees, like Cinderella before the transformation. It's not a stab at false humility — she's in the midst of a photo shoot. Even in painted-on leather pants and a little black top, with makeup slathered over her soft features and creamy skin, Carey projects a wholesome, head-cheerleader kind of beauty. She's had what should have been an exhausting week: Two days ago, she had to fly back from a whirlwind press tour of Europe just in time to induct Gladys Knight & the Pips into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But five hours into the photo session, Carey's still grinning gamely. She doesn't just suffer work gladly — she thrives on it.

In fact, since making her recording debut in 1990 with Mariah Carey, she has released a dizzying five albums (and a live EP) in six years. Along the way, she's sold more than 70 million copies worldwide, and that's not even counting her astronomical singles sales. In music industry math, that means she's made more money selling records, tapes, and CDs than any other female artist in the '90s. Mariah Carey has sold more than Madonna, more than Whitney, more than Janet.

"Fantasy" (a revision of Tom Tom Club's 1981 "Genius of Love), the first single from Carey's latest blockbuster, Daydream, made Billboard history last October by entering the pop and R&B singles charts at No. 1. She was the second artist to pull this off — after Michael Jackson — and the first female. Another song from that album, "One Sweet Day," a wistful duet with Boyz II Men, followed suit, giving a grand total of 10 hits that have topped the pop charts over the course of her six-year career. In January she won two American Music Awards and was nominated for six Grammys.

And yet, for all these accomplishments, Carey still has a seriously difficult time in the respect department. Critics acknowledge her technical prowess and her five-octave range, but they also dismiss her singing as trite and ostentatious, and her music as crossover fluff. "Her songs are often sugary and artificial — NutraSweet soul," sniffed Time last year. It's true that many of Carey's songs haven't packed a lot of visceral punch. And the impressiveness of her voice — as well as her tendency to oversing — make the blandness of her material all the more flagrant. It's one thing to hear Paula Abdul chirp out an innocuous pop ditty; Carey's pipes demand more meat.

Many cast Carey as a Machiavellian bimbo whose career has benefited greatly from her relationship with Tommy Mottola. Mottola is (a) the man who signed her to Columbia Records in 1989; (b) the current president of Sony Music Entertainment, Columbia's parent corporation; and (c) Carey's husband since 1993. According to the bimbo theory, Carey is coddled and her every creative move dictated by Mottola and his cronies. "They call me the Queen of Sony, or whatever," she says, wincing at the term.

Carey could have dealt with these charges by screaming sexism. Or she could have adopted the standard "I don't care about the critics" pose assumed by other maligned megastars who solicit press and then turn up their noses when it gets nasty. Instead, Carey has chosen the precociously savvy route of speaking to reporters rarely and focusing mainly on her work — which, bimbo theorists might note, includes cowriting and coproducing.

Granted, Carey — like Michael Bolton before her — has received flak for her writing work. Four years ago, the Los Angeles-based songwriters Sharon Taber and Randy Gonzalez filed a suit alleging that in the writing of "Can't Let Go," a track on Carey's 1991 album Emotions, Carey and Walter Afanasieff, her longtime songwriting partner, lifted nine out of 11 notes from the chorus of "Right Before My Eyes," a song that Taber and Gonzalez claim was copyrighted in 1990. The suit charges that Carey got access to a tape of "Right Before My Eyes" through a backup singer who also knew Taber. Carey and Afanasieff deny the allegation, but at press time a trial was scheduled to begin in April. A spokesperson for Carey had no comment on the suit.

There are no such headaches surrounding the sprightly Daydream, though, and it's earned Carey, if not raves, then certainly the best reviews she's got to date. One reason is the scarcity of vocal gymnastics on the album. The dog-whistle trills of Carey's earlier hits are less prominent; instead, the singer reveals more of the lower, sultrier part of her range — where her emotive powers are richest. Check out her Barry White imitation on the first few bars of "Melt Away," which she cowrote with Babyface. "A lot of people who wrote about the album thought that was Babyface singing at the beginning," she laughs. "I'm, like, hel-lo! He only sings in the background."

Carey also gets down more with the songs and arrangements. In addition to collaborating with Babyface and Boyz II Men, she enlisted some of the hottest writers, producers, remixers, and hip hop savants around to lend some realness to Daydream. Jermaine Dupri, David Morales, and Dave Hall contributed to this album, and Sean "Puffy" Combs produced a sinuous remix of "Fantasy" featuring Wu-Tang Clan's Ol' Dirty Bastard — not exactly the first guy you'd expect to team up with the girl who crooned syrupy ballads like "Vision of Love" (1990) and "Hero" (1993). For the album's ebullient third single, "Always Be My Baby," Carey did one remix with Dupri protégées Xscape and Da Brat, and another with junior reggae star Vicious.

"I started moving in this direction with 'Dreamlover,'" Carey says, referring to the breezy single from 1993's Music Box that became a club hit through remixes. Unwinding after the photo session, she credits her recent progress to following her instincts. "I listen to this kind of music all the time. It wasn't like I said, 'Tell me, who does good remixes?' or 'Who's the hot rapper of the moment?' I knew what I wanted to do and who I wanted to do it with."

In that sense, Daydream is more a document of the pop soul princess growing up than of her growing hip. Carey was a teenager when she made the album that catapulted her to stardom six years ago. And she still shows traces of the naive, perhaps easily intimidated young girl we heard on those first few hits, trying to hide her fear behind airy glissandos and glass-shattering squeals. "I sometimes defer to people who've had more experience," she says with a rueful smile. "That was my motto for a long time. But now I'm able to say, 'I don't agree with you.' Now if I don't do what I want, I'm the only one to blame."

Before we head out for dinner, Carey shows me through a few rooms in the house, which she and Mottola bought three years ago, moved into last summer, and are still in the process of furnishing. There's a home recording studio overlooking an indoor pool with a sky painted on the ceiling, a screening room with a long chrome bar and jukebox, and a cozy (if cavernous) den with a fireplace. The mantel is lined with pictures of the couple. My tour covers a mere fragment of the place, but as Carey says, "Some things have to be kept private."

We climb into her shiny black Chevy Blazer and drive to Hoppfields, an elegant bistro that the Mottolas frequent. Once there, we're shown to a private upstairs room where a table has been set with chairs side by side. "They probably thought I was coming here with Tommy," Carey smiles. After we've seated ourselves facing each other, she orders pasta, crab cakes, and a carafe of red wine, joking that she plans to get sloshed and tell me the entire story of her life. I'm not counting on it. Carey is notoriously guarded, particularly on subjects like her husband and family. And she seems genuinely apprehensive about being interviewed; when I place my tape recorder on the table, she draws back like a kid about to get a flu shot.

But she is comfortable talking about music. She met her hero, Stevie Wonder, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. "He is the genius of the century," she says. She also gives props to the singers she listened to as a little girl — Knight, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Minnie Riperton — and to Olivia Newton-John, whom Carey, like the rest of us who grew up in the '70s, remembers fondly. Carey also followed early hip hop — she speaks with enthusiasm about "Sugarhill Gang, Eric B. & Rakim, and all the records that followed."

Granted, it's a long road from "Rapper's Delight" to the Wu-Tang Clan. Puffy Combs, on the phone from Atlanta, admits that he was a bit surprised when Carey sought him out to remix the "Fantasy" single, especially since she was the one who specifically requested Ol' Dirty Bastard. "That bugged me out," he says. But Combs found that the singer had a real passion for hip hop — even for the edgier stuff that a cynic might accuse her of dabbling in only to enhance her street credibility.

"She talked about Wu-Tang and Notorious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep — everybody who's hot," says Combs. "It was like talking to one of my friends. And she knows the importance of mixes, so [in the studio with her] you feel like you're with an artist who appreciates your work — an artist who wants to come up with something with you."

Aside from hip hop, Carey's current playlist ranges from Weezer to D'Angelo to Hole. "When I began singing," she says, "there was an effort to portray myself in a simple, classic way — to go the ballad route. I love singing ballads, and I always will." Which makes sense, since she's got a ballad-friendly voice, and her earliest influences were primarily divas.

Carey's first musical role model was her mother, Patricia Carey, a classically trained mezzo-soprano who once sang with the New York City Opera. "I was singing with my mom and her musician friends from the time I was about four years old," Carey recalls. "I'd get home from school, and she would have, like, five friends over who were jazz musicians, and I'd end up singing 'My Funny Valentine' at 2 in the morning."

So by comparison, starring in her sixth-grade production of The Sound of Music didn't seem like a big deal. By high school, in fact, she wasn't participating in any extracurricular programs. "I thought I was too cool to do anything related to school activities," she says, laughing. "I thought I was the tough chick of the school. But I think that stemmed from being insecure as a kid."

She attributes her lack of confidence early on to several factors. First, her parents divorced when she was a toddler. Her mother — who raised Mariah, her older brother, and her sister — led an erratic, job-hopping lifestyle that didn't provide the kids with a lot of stability. "We moved all over Long Island and New York," Carey says. "There were times when we didn't have a place to live and we stayed with her friends. Those were very frightening periods."

Carey pauses. She doesn't want to dis her mom, with whom she has a good relationship and who lives near Mariah in Westchester. "My mother was supportive and encouraging of my singing. But she was...unconventional. Even though my mom was my best friend and always there for me, I never felt exactly like her. Something always made me feel different from her."

Carey isn't just alluding to her mother's gypsylike existence. She's touching on another element central to her insecurity complex: skin color. Patricia is full-blooded Irish-American, with blond hair; Carey's dad is a black Venezuelan. She has said that racial tension contributed to the demise of her parents' relationship. It also had a profound and often unsettling impact on the way Carey related to her mom and to her peers.

"I felt like an outsider," Carey says. "Not that being multiracial was a problem, but it was confusing. It made me feel separate and different from everyone else. I could talk to my mother about it, but she could never relate to it 100 percent. No one could unless they'd been through it. I used to wish I was just one thing or another, instead of a mixture of things."

Carey stares pensively at her wineglass. She wants to make sure she's expressing herself clearly and tactfully. "It's hard to explain," she says. "Some people understand, and some get all critical and freaked-out about the whole thing. People get really bent out of shape when I refer to myself as a multiracial person. I have to identify myself that way, because that's what I am. Not to say so would be inaccurate."

Of course, the diversity of her fans suggests that all kinds of folks are willing to accept Carey, however she chooses to define herself. She gets loads of airplay on radio formats that represent a variety of disparate audiences: young urban, Top 40, adult contemporary, classic soul. Her music crosses rigidly enforced racial and cultural barriers. "I think it's great," she says. "I don't think it has anything to do with my being multiracial — music goes beyond that. But being accepted by all [kinds of] people makes me feel like I belong somewhere. ANd that makes everything I ever went through okay, you know what I mean? All that matters is that I know who I am."

Carey met Tommy Mottola in 1988 at a record label party in Manhattan. She'd moved to the Big Apple right after graduating high school, armed with a demo tape that her big brother, Morgan, financed. A girlfriend of one of the musicians on the tape hooked Carey up with singer Brenda K. Starr, who hired the teen as a backup vocalist. Starr took a special interest in Carey's fledgling career and invited her to a shindig celebrating the opening of the now defunct WTG Records. There the two ran into WTG president Jerry Greenberg and his friend Mottola, who had just been appointed president of CBS Records, Columbia's parent company before Sony took over.

"Brenda knew them both," Carey remembers, grinning slyly. "And she had a copy of my demo. She handed it to Jerry, but Tommy grabbed it! He just put out his hand and snatched it away."

The rest is legend: Mottola left the party, got into his care, popped the tape in his cassette deck, and heard the voice of the '90s. He turned the car around, but by the time he got back to the party, Carey was gone. Using his considerable contacts, he tracked her down.

"We started working together," Carey says, "and gradually, a relationship developed." Mottola's first marriage was effectively over by the time they met, she insists, and other sources confirm that it was, as one put it, "in a state of long-term dissolution."

Carey adds that the record mogul's genuine love of music — Mottola had a brief career as a professional singer many years ago — played a big role in their friendship and courtship: "He's more connected to music than a lot of label people are. He's not just some guy who does the paperwork." As it turns out, Carey has business ambitions of her own; there's a yet-to-be named record company in the works that will be distributed by Sony, and she's already signed a hip hop girl group called Blue Denim, which features Salt's (of Salt-N-Pepa) sister.

In fact, despite the 20-odd-year age difference between them, the Mottolas seem like a pretty compatible pair. And the second Mrs. Mottola gives a convincing portrait of a woman in love, raving about her husband's cooking and giggling effusively when I ask her if they ever sing together around the house. (The answer is no.)

But Carey knows that being married to the boss makes her vulnerable to scrutiny and what she describes as jealous accusations. "Some critics have had their issues with me, which they work into the reviews. They have things they don't like about my personal situation. But it doesn't matter who's in control of putting your records out." Plainly, whatever you think of her music, to credit Carey's success at this point to the man she lives with seems bogus. "That person can't go into stores and make people buy [records]. Only the music can do that." Plus she says, she doesn't mind "valid" criticism.

"On my first tour, I did a show in Florida that was bad. This reviewer ripped me to shreds, and while it upset me, it helped me too. The next show, in Boston, was the best show of the tour. I let myself go more."

Carey's skin is definitely thicker now than it was when she started. The personal stuff still hurts a lot, though. "It's hard to be someone that people talk about and write about, you know? They don't know me." The toughest dilemma she's had to deal with recently involves her sister, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive over a year ago and with whom Carey was recently involved in a "legal situation" that she can't discuss. "I'll just say that my family has problems, and some are more intense than others. This one falls into the much-more-intense category."

Carey knows now how success changes people. "It's changed me, because I've grown up doing this. But a lot of weird jealousy crap also comes into play, from people I thought were true friends, people I bought all over the country with me and did all I could for, who then turned out to be vicious and back-stabbing." She pauses. "I have a few close friends left over. Not many."

But Carey quickly adds that she doesn't want to be pitied. She chose this life for herself and has done quite nicely with it. Cinderella sweated a lot before the glass slippers and the handsome prince, as she takes pains to remind me. "If you see me as just the princess, then you misunderstand who I am and what I've been through," she says. From her earnestness, and her occasional defensiveness, you can tell that this new life still feels strange and precious to her. While she doesn't take the good parts for granted, she's ambivalent about success in general.

It's not that the glamour of the financial rewards make her feel guilty. That kind of guilt is for the bourgeois alternative rock set, not for working-class girls like Cinderella or Mariah. It's about craving attention your whole life, getting it, and then realizing that with that attention comes judgement and with judgement often comes condemnation. When that happens, she says, "I just hold my breath until it passes, and then I move on." Before we leave the restaurant, she touches up her makeup a bit. There are only a few people scattered about the main dining area, but Carey's not taking any chances.

Minutes later, we're in front of her huge, spotless garage. "Sometimes I walk around this place in the middle of a sleepless night," she says quietly, "and I think, You didn't do so badly for yourself, kid." Mariah Carey stands for just a moment at the top of the hill, staring at her Blazer as if she half-expects it to turn into a pumpkin. But it doesn't. So she goes in the house to take off her make-up — and relax.